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What does Google record?

There is a great deal of buzz in the news about Google not turning their search results over to the government. The government has only asked for 1 million random Web addresses and records of all Google searches from any one-week period. What information could Google provide if asked for more? According to their privacy policy Google records the following information in their server logs:

Here is an example of a typical log entry where the search is for "cars", followed by a breakdown of its parts:

123.45.67.89 – 25/Mar/2003 10:15:32 – http://www.google.com/search?q=cars – Firefox 1.0.7; Windows NT 5.1 – 740674ce2123e969

  • *123.45.67.89 is the Internet Protocol address assigned to the user by the user’s ISP; depending on the user’s service, a different address may be assigned to the user by their service provider each time they connect to the Internet;
  • *25/Mar/2003 10:15:32 is the date and time of the query;
  • *http://www.google.com/search?q=cars is the requested URL, including the search query;
  • *Firefox 1.0.7; Windows NT 5.1 is the browser and operating system being used; and
  • *740674ce2123a969 is the unique cookie ID assigned to this particular computer the first time it visited Google. (Cookies can be deleted by users. If the user has deleted the cookie from the computer since the last time s/he visited Google, then it will be the unique cookie ID assigned to the user the next time s/he visits Google from that particular computer).

Of course, if you use Gmail, Google’s Toolbar, or other tools you have elected to send much more information to Google. Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor, has an interesting article about how the only way to keep private information private is for Google not to store it at all. He argues that Google should delete information such as IP’s and limit how long information is stored. Here are some of his comments:

Imagine we were to find out one day that Starbucks had been recording everyone’s conversations for the purpose of figuring out whether cappuccino is more popular than macchiato. Sure, the result, on the margin, might be a better coffee product. And, yes, we all know, or should, that our conversations at Starbucks aren’t truly private. But we’d prefer a coffee shop that wasn’t listening—and especially one that won’t later be able to identify the macchiato lovers by name. We need to start to think about search engines the same way and demand the same freedoms.

It all goes back to this basic point: How free you are corresponds exactly to how free you think you are. And Americans today feel great freedom to tell their deepest secrets; secrets they won’t share with their spouses or priests, to their computers. The Luddites were right—our closest confidants today are robots. People have a place to find basic anonymous information on things like sexually transmitted diseases, depression, or drug addiction. The ability to look in secret for another job is not merely liberating, it’s economically efficient. But all this depends on our feeling free to search without being watched.
bq. Recent events suggest that relying on the present administration to protect such basic freedoms may be, shall we say, unpromising. Other governments are just as bad if not worse. That’s why the public’s demand must be of Google—not the state. It should be that Google please stop keeping quite so much information attached to our IP addresses; please modify logging practices so that all identifying information is stripped. And please run history’s greatest "search and delete," right now, and take out the IP addresses from every file that contains everyone’s last five years of searches.

What do you think?

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As a publicly traded company, Google must retain the information in the server logs in case of audits, or worse, litigation (e.g. for click fraud). Furthermore, Google must retain this information in order to maintain their quality of service. That said, there should be (IMO) more transparency.

The Starbucks example is flawed. A more proper analogy would consider the "hypothetical" involving a Starbucks record of what items are sold where. Of course, that situation is not a hypothetical at all, but very real. Every company out there records what items sell and what items don’t to provide a better, cheaper products and, thereby, to make more money.

I agree with Mr. Wu, however; we should start thinking about search engines the same way as we think about other companies. We should stop expecting a company to go on providing a quality product without knowing anything (or keeping records of it, at least). If we’re going to hold Google to the fire, we should at least be consistent and tell our credit card companies to stop recording our purchases and or our employers to fire everyone in their marketing department. Throw away our cell phones, too, while we’re at it.

There is a simple solution to this whole mess. A simple statement on the front page of every search engine should read: "ALL SEARCH TERMS, AND WEBSITES VISITED ARE RECORDED, ALONG WITH THE IP ADDRESS, SPECIFIC BROWSER USED AND TIME OF THE REQUEST, FOR AN INDEFINITE PERIOD OF TIME."

This statement would not be a threat, nor would it be a warning. It would simply be a statement of fact, and it would be UP FRONT.

By the way, Microsoft IE records the same information GOOGLE is recording.

Anyone know how to hack Google’s database and do the job for them?

If the information is stored someone will always, sooner or later, want access to it. As for goverment only wanting recorde for "1 million for 1 week". As the small boy who put his finger in the Dutch dyke understood, do nothing and the trickle will turn into a flood.

Message to Google; Keep the information and expect more demands for this information in the future.

Searching for GoogleAnon, bit of code that sets the Google cookie to all zeros. Still leave the IP address though.

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